Wednesday, September 10, 2014

An oldie but goodie from Stephen King

A couple weeks ago, someone in a LinkedIn group recommended the movie "Stand By Me" as the archetypical coming of age movie. I don't know that I've ever seen it, but I knew I'd never read the novella on which it's based, Stephen King's "The Body," one of four novellas in Different Seasons. Viking published the book in 1982 when King was 35, and he wrote "The Body" in 1975 when he was about 28.

The ages are significant because in "The Body," King is recalling himself and his world as a 12-year-old boy in a small Maine town. In some ways, the story is simple. Four buddies about the same age hear about the body of a boy who has been missing, decide to go to find it, and become heroes because they found the missing boy. Because the dead boy had apparently been hit by a train, they will follow the train tracks on foot for the thirty miles to reach the body. On the way they have a number of adventures including spending a night in the woods. I don't want to say much more, because if you have not read the story, I recommend it and do not want to spoil it.

"The Body," however, is much more than a boy's adventure story. It is a story about time and change and loss. The first two sentences of the story proper are, "We had a treehouse in a big elm which overhung a vacant lot in Castle Rock. There's a moving company on that lot today, and the elm is gone." The elm is gone and the narrator's youth is gone.

The narrator identifies himself as Gordon Lachance, a successful mid-thirties writer of horror stories, much like Stephen King. "The Body," which is not a horror story and has no supernatural events, does include two samples of "Lachance's" work, a student short story that the narrator criticizes more harshly than I would have, and a more polished story that "Lachance"sold to Cavalier magazine. Although these have nothing to do with the adventure of finding the dead body, they work within the story's context, adding depth and complexity.

And King has interesting things to say about writing and stories: "The only reason anyone writes stories is so they can understand the past and get ready for some future mortality; that's why all the verbs in stories have -ed endings . . . The only two useful artforms are religion and stories." One of "Gordon's" 12-year-old buddies tells him "Those stories you tell, they're no good to anybody but you, Gordie. If you go along with us [his three friends] because you don't want the gang to break up, you'll wind up just another grunt, makin C's to get on the teams. You'll get into High and take the same fuckin shop courses and throw erasers and pull your meat along with the rest of the grunts . . . Nothin'll get written down. Cause you'll just be another wiseguy with shit for brains."

The story does show its age in phrases like "Do you dig?" "If anyone was rankin out my dad—" and more. And there's an occasional stretch that does not work for me: ". . . as I said it some guy pole-vaulted in my stomach. He dug his pole all the way into my balls, it felt like, and ended up sitting astride my heart."

Nevertheless, I am glad I followed up on the recommendation and have read it. If you haven't, it's worth looking up.

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